SpeEdChange TLDR Long Read
Let’s be clear, our educational structures and norms are every bit as at fault as the structures and norms of policing.
Things. Must. Change.
The failures of our society, of our culture, of our institutions, all on display in magnified form over the past four years, have blown up in our face.
And that can become a very good thing.
The dysfunction has been obvious in the way many vote, in what many believe, in resistance to the basic norms of human decency, even in the disappearance of self-preservation norms, that our institutions have failed us. The United States in many ways no longer looks like a durable democracy, but more like a ‘developing nation’ — waiting, maybe hoping, as in Turkey before it became a theocracy, that the better minds in our military will refuse immoral and illegal orders and save us.
Supreme Court Justices cannot tell the difference between going to a grocery store and going to church. Lunatics with rifles invade state capitols, assault police officers, and get away with it. Citizens — to use the word loosely — spit on store clerks who’ve asked them to be decent humans and put a mask on. Buffalo police officers shove a 75-year-old man to the ground, ignore that he’s bleeding from the head, and then are outraged when that behavior is challenged. The military assaults peaceful protesters and church members so the ‘President’ can mug for the camera holding a Bible upside down, and the Defense Secretary, along for the walk, says he, “didn’t know where [he] was going,” then “I thought we were going to look at a park restroom.”
The nation is ravaged by disease, torn into warring groups, locked down and unemployed, and now thrown into chaos because too many police officers think they can kill anyone — anyone Black or perhaps LatinX — in broad daylight. It’s like the climax of Ghostbusters.
But a day of reckoning has dawned. The power of huge crowds of multiracial young protesters, undeterred by continuing police violence, has created more movement on race in a few weeks than I have seen since the 1960s faded.
There is an opportunity right now, with a racist President and a racist US Senate majority tripping over themselves in rhetoric and actions, do begin the change this nation has desperately needed for centuries.
“Giuliani won the 1993 election against Dinkins and won re‐election in 1997. During his two terms, the NYPD ran roughshod over the civil liberties of all New Yorkers, particularly in neighborhoods where most young men of color grew up under the thumb of constant police harassment. At the heart of Giuliani’s law enforcement policy, in case after case, was a lack of accountability for police misconduct.” — Nat Hentoff and Nick Hentoff
The cry for institutional change…
Trump’s Attorney General — for he is that, he is not an attorney representing either the American people nor the U.S. Constitution — says the American law enforcement is not “systemically racist.” Trump’s unconfirmed Homeland Security Secretary says “systemic racism” doesn’t exist. But both are either liars or so willfully ignorant as to make them unworthy of appearing on an actual news program. Law enforcement in the United States is both systemically racist and systematically racist. Racist at the core of its function and racist in it’s operations and policies. Everyone knows that, and all the President has to do is ask his second personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, who put in place a whole new level of official racism as Mayor of the City of New York in the 1990s. (lest any cops rush to defend Giuliani remember that before running for mayor Rudy made his name by throwing cops in jail for ‘following orders’)
But the racism in our schools is also systemic and systematic, and the lies are no less common. “School officials could not be immediately reached for comment on Sunday, but administrators told the newspaper that “the good conduct policy is consistently enforced” and that the administration “has followed student code of conduct for all students they have caught violating the code for drugs or fighting,” Iowa City school administrators said after a high school senior, Nina Lavezzo-Stecopoulos, published a deeply researched school newspaper story detailing the stunning (but not unusual) discipline gap between white and Black students.
“Black students in the district of 14,000 account for 20 percent of its population but 60 percent of in- and out-of-school suspensions, she reported. In contrast, white students account for 56.6 percent of the student population but 32.3 percent of all suspensions.”
I am not putting Iowa City schools in the same category as the Trump administration. Every lie told in the White House and among Republicans in Congress is calculated to convince his supporters — a minority and all white — that they are under attack so that the destruction of democracy makes sense. Iowa City educational leaders don’t have those intentions.
What the two do share though is “willful ignorance.” ‘Active Willful Ignorance’ in Washington. ‘Passive Willful Ignorance’ in schools and local police departments.
‘Willful Ignorance' is denying the evidence in front of you. The Active comes in when you are working to ignore the obvious. The Passive is when you are not working to see the obvious.
Active Willful Ignorance: ‘Handed a copy of [Trump’s tweet insisting that a 75-year-old assaulted by Buffalo police was an ‘Antifa" provocateur], Senator Kevin Cramer, Republican of North Dakota, scanned the page before saying, “I don’t even know the episode he’s talking about.”
Racially determined school discipline is as obvious as is racially determined policing. I once asked a room full of current and future police officers in a “Police Ethics” course, “Why would a Black male run from the police even if he’d done nothing wrong?” The white university student future cops didn’t know why. The African American serving officers knew that Black males should run. “You’re going to get beat either way, you may as well try to get away,” one said.
Just as in a high school I once wondered, since they weren’t doing anything else, if they’d like to rename the In School Suspension room and call it the Black Student Union.
Buy changes. I’m a fan of unions, and I’m a fan of public employee unions, but… police unions have unfortunately focused on separating cops from communities and maintaining racist practices, and they deserve a great deal of blame for the current crisis. The leaders of police unions in New York City, in Minneapolis, in Buffalo all long ago forgot why police exist, creating a loud and angry continuous clash with people. That has led to calls to defund police, which I’m guessing is not what police union members wanted.
Defund the police? Perhaps don’t say it that way — because language matters and “we" need to be better than “them.” The way to fight back against Trumpian “domination" language is not making existential threats against those we need to change.
Zero-Based Thinking on Community Safety is the phrase we need. That’s what Pam Moran and I call the process of envisioning completely new ways of providing people with what they need. In education we ask people to imagine if schools didn’t exist, imagine if you’d never heard of school, what do you think we would need to help get our kids from age 4 to age 18, or age 22?
For police departments the same exercise is essential. How would we help make our communities safe? — if we were starting from scratch?
Cities, states, communities need different behaviors and different ways to respond to community needs. Of course we need to stop spending on military tactics and equipment. Of course we need different recruitment and different training and different culture. But it goes much deeper: We need to rethink what we mean by safety. We need to consider how to differentiate community needs. If we’re worried about terror attacks on, say, the New York City Subway, cops with big body armor and serious weapons might be appropriate. If we’re worried about street crime — robberies, larcenies, etc — that might look like old fashioned ‘cops on the beat’ backed up by mobile patrols that can get somewhere quickly. If we’re talking about traffic issues that requires something else, and if we’re talking about medical emergencies (which can be up to half of all 911 calls), well…
We need much more sophisticated 911 systems that dispatch services that are both appropriate and decently funded. I can recall one night in The Bronx when my partner and I spent almost 4 hours getting Social Services to find beds for a homeless family of 5 who’d been living in their van — until it was stolen. We felt good about solving that but, really? As I wrote in 1992 it is a disaster when the only thing we offer impoverished communities is “police protection.” In a Zero-Based Redesign the 911 call might be routed to a well funded Social Services Response Team. My NYPD patrol partner and I both had emergency medical certifications and we ran many medical calls, again we were good at what we did but it would have been better for everyone if the city had funded more ambulances and more EMS crews. Hell, we drove a few addicted homeless Vietnam vets to the hospital to get meds — certainly there’s a better way to handle that. In France, as an example, calls for medical assistance can result in a wide range of possible services, from a taxi to bring someone to the hospital, to the most sophisticated life support ambulances with doctors on board. That saves money and saves lives.
So, we’d perhaps need a few less officers, better educated, better trained, and better paid officers if we made different choices from the moment someone calls 911.
Yet, I need to say this, because Trump and Trumplicans are already lying to cops about what “defunding” means — most cops barely get by financially. They sit just below middle class in exchange for doing extraordinarily difficult jobs. They often commute long distances from the exurban homes they can afford, which furthers their separation from both family and humanity, and they lack much in the way of incentives to participate in continuing education common among professionals who are not cops. Cops are typically young, with young families, with parents often working different shifts in order to handle child care. They are stressed, and we cannot get the kind of cooperation we need if we make cops even more scared.
So buy change. Offer police significant raises in exchange for increased transparency and increased accountability. Imagine union leader Patrick Lynch explaining to the NYPD rank and file why he turned down a 20% raise in order to protect the racist and violent union members.
As with teachers, we expect police to be thoroughly professional, thoroughly educated, thoroughly empathetic, but we refuse to pay them the way we pay other professionals in our society. That’s self defeating.
When I was ‘in uniform,’ we were a group of kids in our 20s. We had new families, with newborns. Our spouses worked and our survival often rested on the destructive necessity of working overtime. And to make this clear — overtime usually meant making arrests, which in the overwhelmed New York City justice system of the 1980s could take anywhere from six to 24 hours to process. If we make arresting people financially lucrative, we get what we deserve.
Change cops’ understanding of risk, of danger, and of their own authority. I don’t know how many readers have ever been in a fight when you thought your life was on the line. It is frightening in a very deep way, a fear that stays with you forever. So, if it was me, and it was me, I’d want to limit those kinds of struggles to a minimum. I’d want to focus those incidents on what are called the prevent/terminate moments — those times when you can prevent a crime or can stop a crime. The New York State Penal Code even gave us a handy guide — there were 5 crimes when deadly physical force could be used to prevent or terminate, remembered with the easy acronym “Mr.Mrs.” Murder, Robbery, Manslaughter, Rape, (Forcible) Sodomy.
This is when force matters. This is when you can stop a person from being hurt. Note: the list does not include Burglary or Larceny (both property crimes) and it certainly doesn’t include counterfeiting, selling untaxed cigarettes, graffiti, traffic violations, or obviously, protesting.
That concept then needs to extend to the ‘fleeing felon' situation. When can a cop shoot someone who is ‘getting away”? But notice that the term is “fleeing felon,” not anyone running from a cop or escaping from a cop. The idea that a person getting away from a cop after shoplifting, or after driving 10 mph over a speed limit, or not getting out of the way of a crazed Attorney General and his Storm Troopers, these things can’t possibly rise to an occasion when use of any force is justified.
My law instructor in the police academy said this was a simple equation. “What is the threat this person presents to the community? What is the worst thing possible if they get away for this moment?” His standard? very relevant at the time, was Son of Sam. A serial killer is someone you take out however you can. A classmate of mine raised a question: “What if it’s a guy who just killed his mother?” Deadpan, and with gallows humor, the instructor answered driving home his point, “killed his mother? Well, he won’t do that again.”
This is important. There was no real threat to any community if Michael Stewart, Philandro Castile, Eric Garner, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd (and on and on) had gotten away. Not in the mind of any rational human being. Likewise if any of the protesters beaten by cops, shot with rubber bullets by cops, pepper sprayed by cops, gassed by cops, shoved by cops over the past two weeks had not been “stopped” no rational person not in the Trump cabinet could have perceived a serious threat to the community.
But what we have seen is cops who take every violation as a personal affront, with there being no worse crime than defying their personal authority.
Worse, we have police commanders, a President, and some clearly dangerous members of Congress, who view a challenge to their authority as so serious that it is worth killing humans to stop that. Beyond the fact that this goes against our entire Constitutional framework of rights, it is antithetical to our moral framework and our social contract. It is simply wrong.
Listen, I had people disrespect my authority every day I was in uniform. But… what was my calculation. In a teaching moment one night working with a brand new rookie, we saw someone steal a car. The kid was driving. I said, “go get him.” But then the thief went down an exit ramp from I-95, in other words heading into wrong way traffic on the single busiest stretch of road on the east coast. So I did two things, I got on the radio and asked cars to get to the next exit to prevent something really bad. And while I did that I reached over, turned the car off and took the keys. “One car going the wrong way on this highway is really bad, “ I told my surprised partner, “a chase going the wrong way will kill people without a doubt.” Letting a ‘criminal’ get away is intolerable for too many cops, and that just has to change. It isn’t personal. We don’t have personal laws. People are prosecuted by “The People” or “The State” in this country. These are societal decisions because legally they are crimes against our society.
“Disrespecting a police officer” should not be a capital crime. Fleeing from a misdemeanor or non-violent felony arrest need not be a crime. Only twice did I sign complaints about “assault on a police officer” and both were truly violent acts. Otherwise, if everybody who committed a crime walked into the courthouse and surrendered we’d probably need 90% fewer cops.
And a cop’s fragile masculinity shouldn’t be the basis of police tactics. I’m sorry if any cop needs to prove his ‘manhood’ on the streets. That is sad. But nowhere in the job description for any police officer I’ve ever seen does it say, “project toxic masculinity” or “act like you need to prove you have a penis.”
Anyway, getting into a fatal fight with a guy who may be selling untaxed cigarettes is as stupid as the guy who shot at me when I was trying to arrest him for stealing a car, “wait a second,” I said to him, “you just shot at a cop to stop getting arrested for a crime you won’t even do jail time for? What is wrong with you?”
Yes. Those are analogous. And yes, that is a cultural attitude we must change immediately.
Overhaul imagery, overhaul practices. On my very first night as a uniformed cop in an NYPD precinct the classic veteran cop, let’s call him Johnny Murphy, poured advice at me. And many of those things became touchstones for me. “Never give a ticket to anyone with kids in the car,” he said, “just stopping mom or dad is humiliating enough for a parent, but if you write the ticket they will drive away cursing police and you have made two generations of enemies. On the other hand, if you say, “please drive carefully because I know how much you love your kids,” they will drive away sending their kids a different message, and you’ve made two generations of friends.”
“Don’t harass good people,” he said later. “Most people, 90+% of people, are good people just trying to live their lives well and take care of their families. Be their friends so they’ll be yours. After all, when you’re in trouble — and you will be in this precinct — you want people looking out the window to call 911.”
And then he said, “sometimes you’ve got to take off the damn mirrored sunglasses. Stop trying to look scary and impersonal. That doesn’t help with most people.”
Johnny, a Vietnam veteran with wounds from war, had spent more than a decade in the 41st Precinct in The Bronx — the legendary “Fort Apache,” where at its nightmare worst had almost one two-person patrol car for every block and still burned to the ground (which left other shards of metal in his body). He could have been the embittered guy acting like the bad union leaders, but he wasn’t. He was a deeply reflective, philosophical community servant, and his impact on younger cops was huge.
He identified classic police self-defeating behaviors. Police far too often are positioned as an enemy of most of the population. Ask people about State Police and they’ll tell you about speeding tickets. Ask people about city cops and they’ll talk about parking tickets. Ask teens — or especially college kids — about cops and they’ll talk about harassment and arrests for things kids know cops did themselves at their age. And what I’ve just listed are the stories you’ll get from white people. Indeed, every time a new acquaintance learned I was a cop I’d get blasted with stories of rude cops giving tickets. “I don’t give tickets,” I’d say, because as my weekly activity reports indicated, I didn’t. I’d leave those conversations madder at rude cops than at the person confronting me.
Society sends two groups out to fix everything. Cops and teachers.
If we look at every action, every norm, every policy, and ask, “what’s the end result of us doing this?” we would probably learn to remake the entire concept.
Stop incentivizing bad behaviors. No police department, no municipality, no county, no court system, no state, should get paid when arrests are made, when tickets are given, when people are fined. America has, over the past 40 years, become nothing more than the notorious ‘speed trap towns' that funded their governments by fining people for normal behaviors.
If it’s bad for individual cops to choose to make arrests as a financial decision, it’s a disaster when governments do the same. Many of the roots of the disaster in Ferguson, Missouri grew from the city’s attempt to finance itself by fining Black people for doing, well, just about anything.
“To understand some of the distrust of police that has fueled protests in Ferguson, Mo., consider this: In 2013, the municipal court in Ferguson — a city of 21,135 people — issued 32,975 arrest warrants for nonviolent offenses, mostly driving violations.” (providing $2.6 million in city revenue in 2013) — NPR
“After a police officer killed an unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown five years ago this month in Ferguson, Mo., protests there rocked the nation, leading to a public outcry over race and policing. People were outraged to learn that municipalities throughout St. Louis County had been issuing traffic tickets to finance city services — and jailing drivers who could not afford to pay — with black residents bearing the brunt of those policies.” — The New York Times
Every single dollar in fines, fees, ‘court costs ‘ and from seized properties should go to anti-poverty programs. In other words, let’s use that money for good, and stop police work and the criminal justice system from being self-financed through aggression.
Constitutional Law and Sociology. The biggest gift I got from the New York City Police Academy was definitely not the plaque I received for finishing second out of 1700+ graduates. Nor was it the reputation I carried forward for being kind of crazy and highly non-compliant (as non-compliant as one can be in a military-type organization). Rather, it was Law with Sgt. Anthony Diaz, most particularly the hours and hours and hours of Constitutional Law.
The NYCPA is perhaps unique among department run Criminal Justice and Police training programs. Six months of 46 hours a week earning over 40 State University of New York credits. And 40% of that was law. We were drilled in Supreme Court case law, in Civil Rights case law, and in the ethical practice of that. And we were pushed and pushed and pushed on ‘the use of deadly physical force.’
You might not believe it, based on what you know from the Eric Garner case and so many others, but no one got to carry a gun who didn’t get 100% on the Use of Force final exam. (A note on Eric Garner: Physical training was equally clear: as for chokeholds, “this isn’t Philly or LA,” one instructor screamed in the gym, “we have rules here.” The rule he was talking about? Never using your nightstick — ”baton" — to choke anyone.
A close second was Sociology with an instructor whose name I’ve forgotten, he really disliked me (see reputation, above). We spoke a great deal about poverty, about relationships with the incredible diversity of the communities in New York City, about humanity, about what I guess I’d describe as ‘differentiated policing,’ working within the norms of a community. Hell, we spent three full days just working on making death notifications. And of course that wasn’t just about how to say, “your kid is dead,” it was about empathy.
Police training in too many places emphasizes the crime aspect of police work, the physical acts of police work, I even know states that still work heavily on shooting at a stationary target from 25 yards — something with zero connection to actual police work. But human rights, civil rights, community services, and empathy are the real toolkit for cops, and we must have national standards for the right kind of police education.
It ain’t just chokeholds: Chokeholds are a symptom more than they are the problem. As white working-class males in America have become convinced that they are the victims (with the help of those who fund the Republican Party and Fox News), as they have been taught to whine relentlessly about their plight, as the National Rifle Association has promoted the idea that Democratic presidents will “come for your guns” and take away your pickup truck and perhaps your wife, cops — typically white guys raised in distant suburbs — have become more and more frightened.
And listen, being a cop can be mighty scary without that crap piled on top. The fear has made them easy pickings for con-men who provide “training” in brutality and war time tactics, and equipment manufacturers who strike gold every time a cop is shot. In addition, police recruitment has been far too accepting of military veterans who’ve been trained for war but have never experienced the actual blood . The key point here is the obvious — policing and the military have nothing in common outside of both wearing uniforms — well, not always. The best of the US military has always been winning over perceived ‘enemies.’ from Germans and Japanese in 1945–46, to communities in Afghanistan. The humanity of the military, combined with the teaching that soldiers must not follow illegal or immoral orders, has projected the best of American power.
Police since 9/11 have been drilled in counter-terrorism and that has increased their individual fears while leading to a divide from their communities that is now larger than it has ever been. Scared people make terrible police officers, and when that fear is reinforced every day it creates a shoot first mentality. The process that takes a cop from unholstering their weapon to pulling the trigger can take a very brief span of time, but it involves a whole series of decisions. Those decisions will be different if the cop is seeing the crisis as happening in “my community” than if the cop is seeing the crisis happening in, what’s that Trump administration phrase? “the urban battlespace?”
“President Trump signed an executive order in August 2017 to rescind Obama’s restrictions on what is known as the 1033 program, allowing once again for the military to provide bayonets, grenade launchers, .50-caliber ammunition and other equipment to local law enforcement agencies. Police unions widely praised the move, which was championed by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
“This helps explain the ubiquitous images of Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicles, also known as MRAPs, deployed during nationwide protests of police brutality after George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis police custody on Memorial Day.
“These tactical vehicles, designed amid the Iraqi insurgency 15 years ago to withstand IED attacks, have been cruising around American cities, often accompanied by officers who are armed in ways that even infantry veterans of the global war on terrorism find themselves taken aback by.” — James Hohmann and Mariana Alfaro in the Washington Post
Police forces in America have evolved from the community Watchmen, on one hand, and the Slave Chasers on the other. It has always been a system caught between competing ideologies. It was highly corrupt in the late 19th century and yet dynamically connected to its communities through the equally corrupt but high-constituent-service Democratic machines.
In the early 20th century police were ‘professionalized’ — unfortunately often by veterans of America’s brutal war against the Philippines — who brought home counter-insurgency tactics and an us-against-them attitude. And since we’ve lurched between unquestioned hero worship, and indistinct vilification.
We, as a culture don’t know what we want. And we need to make decisions. If I want you to see the difficult nature of solving crime I’ll ask you to watch those two 1940s films, Naked City and Mystery Street. If I want to show you the real job of a police boss I’ll ask you to listen to 21st Precinct a radio show from the 1950s. If I want to show you the moral dilemmas of fighting society’s ‘wars,’ I’ll ask you to watch Prince of the City. If I want to show you the human toll, I’ll ask you to watch the television series, Homicide, Life on the Street. If I want to show you the fear I’ll ask you to read Joseph Wambaugh’s brilliant The Onion Field. But what I hope you will do is to get uncomfortable, and to imagine the public safety structure that will work for every American.
End Homework. All of it. At the heart of inequity in our schools lies the malpractice of homework. It is hardly the biggest thing but the complete acceptance of the white middle class view of homework is a critical issue if educators are even going to begin discussing equity.
Homework was designed from the start, at the turn of the 20th century, to make sure everyone knew that the new middle class had servants and that thus, their kids didn’t have chores. And to ensure that those kids who might be mixed with poor kids in public schools would be separated into the winners column.
And homework still has no other function. Our kids go home to a radically different range of homes, some in which homework is done for them (see ‘Middle School Science Fair’), others in which homework is supported, or is possible, or in the many homes in which it is impossible.
If we’ve seen this dramatized in the last few months as we have tried to shove an irrelevant and unresponsive school model into diverse homes, well, welcome to the obvious, but truly, welcome nonetheless.
The reason I begin here is that homework doesn’t even count as a daily microaggression. It is daily brutality toward children.
Stop it. Stop it now. Even for the kids who find it easy, why would we force our children to work a double shift. And for those without resources — who are often Black and LatinX — you are sentencing them to failure.
Eliminate Discipline. Yes, my version of chanting “Defund Police.” It is not that we want to ignore safety and the rights of all learners, but “discipline” in schools is little more than violence against children who are different, children who are not compliant. And the children are different because they are not white, not middle class, not ‘normally-abled,’ not neurotypical. And the children are not compliant because they are not white, not middle class, not ‘normally-abled,’ not neurotypical.
Not microaggressions. Assault. Day after day, hour after hour, in schools, classrooms, corridors, even playing fields all across this nation.
Why does “inside voice” mean a volume that white teachers like? Why can’t children run in halls? Not walk in a line? Not talk or laugh? Whose idea of how humans go from place to place is being ordered? Why is ‘unacceptable language’ determined by old white people? Why can’t kids walk out of a classroom to take a break? Why can’t kids come late if they need to? Why do schools allow teachers to give zero grades to kids for non-compliance?
Every one of the above list is an aggressive imposition of somebody’s culture. It’s usually not the culture of the students. It is time for every school to bring Zero-Based Thinking to their entire student behavior handbook, which is typically a racist document from cover-to-cover.
In other words stop being a racist, classist, anti-immigrant, anti-disability, anti-neurodiversity school. Which, though usually passively, most schools are.
“I see it at the start of every school year, and frustratingly, most school administrators refuse to see it. The middle class syllabus.
“You’ve seen it, of course. It’s a document — often available only on non-accessible paper — that lists a succession of due dates and point scores, along with plenty of penalties. Oh yeah… and often insists that students buy stuff.”
Syllabi, teacher classroom discipline rules, teacher grading practices, cafeteria rules, actions/rules/suggestions by coaches, classroom decor, cellphone policies, all either support inclusivity or support white supremacy, and administrators and peers must enforce school expectations in all these fields. These range from the dreaded ‘middle school planner’ (let kids use their phones and help them learn their own organizational strategies), to classroom walls (do not cover windows or close blinds/shades except for extreme sun control needs, leave one wall blank — and in a calm color if possible — so kids with attention issues or on the spectrum have a calm place to rest their eyes), to the teacher grabbing the window for themselves and their enormous desks (if a teacher desk area totals more than 20 square feet you need to reclaim that space — and the windowsills — for kids), to insisting where and how — or if — kids sit (if kids cannot learn to create their own work environments for different tasks, they will fail at employment and college), to all those sickening ‘motivational’ posters on the walls, to the kind of classroom signs that degrade kids. All are assaults.
After a few years changing our 25 school libraries into noisy, active, comfortable, collaborative ‘learning commons,’ our librarians finally settled on the rules. There were two, “be curious, be kind.” “If we say that,” they said, “you don’t need anything else.”
Let learners own the school. If you think that’s a ridiculous idea, maybe you’ll use a phrase like “inmates running the asylum” — a thought that always says more about your school than about any kids. Our go to example of this is our middle school cafeteria treehouse project, in which kids, in the weeks before state testing for this ‘not quite passing’ school, choose what they wanted to change — their cafeteria (“our dining experience”). How they wanted to change it — add 2 massive rolling treehouses. And then what these treehouses needed to be (they even created wheelchair accessibility without a word from adults). The results? Well, the school finally met math standards on the tests — not only met them but topped the state average, but that’s just an aside. The kids came together (“a community barn raising” as the architect helping described it), and the kids saw themselves with ownership — they wrote the rules for use (“you don’t climb holding either your lunch tray or your laptop, ask someone to pass those up”). Now, years later, when any classroom has a furniture need, the kids build it. And something else, the principal made it clear that the only person who could decide that the cafeteria was too loud was her, meaning kids were no longer subject to the whims of whoever had lunch duty. And she bought standing tables from Wayfair and gave kids that choice. All of this helped meld a student body that came from classically segregated elementary schools (white farm kids and white poverty, Black farm kids and Black poverty, white Appalachia poverty, and some suburban kids) into a learning community.
What else goes into owning the school? I remember, back in the last century, walking into an elementary school — a high poverty one — and seeing kids everywhere in the halls, working in the halls, going to the library or music or art without teachers accompanying them. “We think it’s important for kids to learn how to get themselves where they need to go,” the principal told me, “if you need the library get up and go to the library, that’s what the world is like.” And that became one of my key metrics. When I walk into a school I want to see kids in the halls whether classes are in session or not. If there are kids moving through the building it means that the adults trust the kids. And if adults trust the kids, the kids can begin to trust the adults, and if the kids can trust the adults actual learning (as opposed to ‘training’)becomes possible.
Kids determining their environment and learning space rules, what I call “Instructional Tolerance,” is essential. “The unfortunate truth is that classroom management and our structures of school are indeed about “winning.” About winning a victory over what we see as the great dangers of childhood and adolescence. We treat children and adolescents as if they are dangerous aboriginals who must be civilized. The spontaneity, the curiosity, the invention, even the patience of kids are conceived as things to be crushed and eliminated,” I wrote back in 2017. “The bullying that occurs in schools begins right there, with adults seeking victories over kids in that cultural/colonial war. And that is the primary thing kids learn in school. They learn about power, and how power is personal, and how power is abused. They learn that humans don’t really deserve to be seen as equally deserving of dignity, but are to be classified and ranked, honor rolled or not, put on the team or cut.”
“There has been no shortage of episodes [of issues with School Resource Officers] to back up their concerns. In Orange County, Fla., in November, a school resource officer was fired after a video showed him grasping a middle school student’s hair and yanking her head back during an arrest after students fought near school grounds. A few weeks later, an officer assigned to a school in Vance County, N.C., lost his job after he repeatedly slammed an 11-year old boy to the ground.
All of that problem stems from not accepting all of our children as complete humans, complete humans we know can make rational, empathetic decisions. Have you ever thought of not arranging your classroom or decorating it, but waiting and asking the kids to do it? On the other hand would you want one of your students re-arranging and re-decorating your home? Whenever you use your power over kids think about how the reversed power structure would make you feel.
Change your metrics. As I mentioned above, kids in the halls was one of my metrics. Smiles were another. Obvious joy another. I’ll never forget, at the beginning of our high school one-to-one laptop program (laptops for which kids were the local administrators) I watched a tall, thin African-American boy dance down the big open stairway in the center of the school, earbuds plugged into his school issued laptop. I knew, right there, that we had a success. By giving true ownership of the devices to kids (most from poverty) we had made these prized possessions. Letting kids move, and even dance with them, was changing the culture of the building. He was dancing to the most joyous high school library I’d ever seen, one that kids needed to make an arduino door monitor to make sure the kids in the space didn’t exceed the fire code.
Acceptance of every child is an obvious other. When I worked in Special Ed I knew secondary schools that let their spectrum and mobility-impaired kids leave class early to avoid the chaos of their hallways. “I think you are saying that your school is a failure,” I told one principal. “If vulnerable kids cannot be safe in your halls, don’t you see a real problem?
Of course your evaluation system for students must be looking at the things you know are important. Consider that grades tell us much more about the teacher than about the student, and that state tests tell much more about the state social demographics than about any school or any child.
“Our modern system of sorting younger students into stepwise “grades” proliferated alongside the practice of grading itself — that is, the recording of marks and calculation of averages. Before that, students of different ages and ability levels often learned together, especially in rural areas.” In other words, the system we think of now as “traditional” was actually a radical attempt to redesign human learning — moving away from the family and community-based multiage patterns that had existed for all time, and moving away from the true human tradition of finding value in every community member and moving to an analytical system built at a time before education reformers had any real understanding of the human brain.”
I asked in the post linked above, “So the first question is, can you live with an assessment system that you believe hurts children? What are your redlines?”
That’s the vital question in every realm of education as it must be in policing, that “first, do no harm” exhortation doctors learn. An NYPD sergeant once told me that, “if you being there is the problem, leave,” and I certainly wish today’s NYPD commanders had that wisdom during the early days of the protests, when overwhelmingly the police were the problem.
In schools, adults are often the problem as well. I once had a kindergarten teacher ask me, in a bar at a conference, “what do I do? When I’m reading to the kids there’s one boy who’s standing in the back spinning around.” “is he bothering anyone? I asked. “Only me,” she said. “Ahh,” I began, “if it’s only you it’s easiest if you learn to ignore it.” “But what if every kid does it?” “Then,” I said, “you have a different problem.”
Later I watched a principal video a first grade teacher who was doing a lesson with kids on the floor in front of her. One boy kept interrupting, but they were the slight interruptions of an active kid. Every time the kid interrupted the teacher stopped what she was doing and yelled at the boy. Afterwards as teacher and principal met, the teacher said, “I don’t know what to do with that boy, he ruined that lesson.” The principal held up her phone and hit play. “He didn’t,” she said, “you did. You know you can’t really freak out anytime a child makes noise. Kids make noise.”
Or the high school principal who banned hats. He did it for the best reasons, to limit the appearances of the Confederate Flag in the school, here in Central Virginia. A year later he switched. “I let them wear hats. Last year I’d stand in front of the school and say “take your hat off.” Now I say, “Good morning, how are you?” and wow, it makes everything better.”
Remember, every rule you make requires you to enforce that rule. And every time you enforce a rule you move from being an educator to a police officer, and not the good kind of police officer.
Remember too that when the NYPD’s rank and file union ran a slowdown to protest against the mayor, not only did arrests and citations drop, crime dropped. Calls to 9/11 dropped. What does that tell us? Fewer rules, less enforcement, equals a better environment.
And going back to discipline: you must track every single disciplinary incident by school adult(s) involved, race and ethnicity, educational status (SpEd, ELL, etc), time, and location. (individual accountability is as important in education as it is in policing) That metric must be compared to your tracking of every “recognition,” from ‘student of the day’ to honor rolls, from awards to being invited to be on advisory panels. And, going further, when clubs, teams, activity groups don’t represent the demographics of your entire school, the faculty advisors need to be asked what their plan is to change that.
Most secondary principals, when being honest, will admit that 90% of discipline referrals come from 5% of teachers.
Rethink Time: Which students are “tardy” most often. Who is absent most often? Have you looked at that by family socio-economic class?
One thing many more educators have noticed during our pandemic is the vast difference between both homes and the responsibilities of our kids. An educator in a district near me asked where I thought all their high school students were. “Been to Kroger?” I asked, “been to Walmart? Your kids are picking out the orders and loading them into our cars. They’re feeding their families.”
Teachers have noticed how difficult it is to work full-time while caring for their own kids full-time. Well, so many of our children juggle all these responsibilities every day. Back in the last century I had a soccer player — my team captain — who was the primary source of income for his household, his mother (struggling with opioid addiction), his younger sister, and himself. He took care of the house, worked over 40 hours a week (in multiple jobs), went to school, and managed to be at every practice. The principal thought he was “scattered, ADHD, and out of control.”
“Really?” I said, “are you kidding? You do know that on his priority list sitting in your classrooms is at the bottom, for very good reasons.”
“Time is the first technology of school, and the most abusive,” is something I’ve said for a long time. It is also the creator of a tremendous amount of inequity. Think just about the teacher statement, “if you finish early you can work on what you want.” Who doesn’t ever get to do what they want?”
Homework of course. “If you get it done at home, you have free time at school.” Who never gets free time. “If you get done with the assigned reading you can pick out another book.” Who never gets to pick the books they want?
All the “Little Things”:
Maybe we need to use the term “microaggression” here. Or maybe not, because these aggressions cause real hurt. I cannot imagine what it’s like to be an African American kid forced to attend “Robert E. Lee High School.” Or to have to drive down “Stonewall Jackson Highway.” Or to be an American soldier assigned to a military base named after a traitor who killed tens of thousands of US troops in order to keep my ancestors enslaved. Obviously people who vote Republican not only can’t imagine — they don’t care.
We have thousands of schools named after virulent racists, including some of the most honored names in white American history, people like Thomas Jefferson and Woodrow Wilson, but also local segregationist governors, mayors, and school board members — and not just in ‘The South.’
Renaming these monuments to white supremacy is indeed re-writing history. It is re-writing history to reflect truth and morality. Thomas Jefferson did know slavery was wrong. He wrote letters to John Adams for decades, he knew the Marquis de Lafayette, but he not only kept slaves, he raped them. Woodrow Wilson — the only US President to live in the Confederacy during the Civil War — sure should have known he was an extreme racist by the standards of his time. He not only undid Theodore Roosevelt’s small movement moves toward racial equity, he brutally segregated the executive branch. He not only thought Asians were inferior, not only wouldn’t eat with the Asians at Versailles, he wouldn’t eat food cooked by Asians.
We shouldn’t continue to celebrate these people as heroes. Flawed humans with powerful thoughts, but not heroes. Not as people who deserve schools or any public space or building named after them.
“For black members of the military, seeing confederate names on military barracks delivers a special sting, given that they lionize men who led a treasonous war.”
That, however, is a small tip of an enormous iceberg. We send awful signals to kids every day, all day. Certain teachers post horrific things on classroom walls — posters celebrating the Calvinist Work Ethic, posters demanding eye contact, posters filled with threats if kids act like kids (especially if they act like non-white kids) — and no one challenges that. We demand compliance in corridors — what would you think if there were stringent behavior rules wherever you walked ?— and in cafeterias. We limit what our most children can do because we need to ‘remediate’ them because we insist that they know less when they actually know different.
We measure kids against white middle class vocabularies. We measure kids against math standards that are as random as they are irrelevant. We insist that children read the way white European protestants do. We insist that kids sit all day as if they are in a white protestant church. We enforce rules that kids know are bulls*** — why can’t kids eat when they’re hungry and drink when they’re thirsty — pretty much wherever they are. We allow teachers to change the rules every time a kid moves between classrooms. We refuse to let them learn at their rate, in their own order, via their own interests. We teach them trivia — our trivia — instead of anything that matters.
“Newborns are language universalists, Dr. Kuhl said. Able to learn any sound in any language, they can distinguish all the sounds that humans utter. But adults are language specialists.”
We constantly diminish kids, we treat them as an enemy, and a dumb enemy at that. But let me tell you, children are intelligent, complete humans. They make rational decisions based on the data they are taking in. They are born incredibly curious and able to see, hear, taste, smell, and feel the world in ways adults no longer can. Truly.
Opportunity and the “4As”:
In the end it is all about what our children need, and what we must give to our children if they are to do a much better job of building something much better than we have done. So, what do we want our children to be?
What do we want our children to be? We live in a broken society, broken by 401 years of anti-Black racism, by 412 years of genocide against First Nations, by centuries of abuse of other minorities, by centuries of misogyny, by love for a vicious social-[pseudo]Darwinist capitalism. Our children will need to be able to begin not just repairs, but a reconstruction of our foundations.
“A school struggling with the ravages of American poverty has to first be a home — the kind of home the children may not have at home. A place that is relentlessly safe, that is both calming and exciting, that offers unconditional love, and that offers boundless opportunity.
“That ‘home’ must be supportive and accepting, loving and encouraging, and it must provide the biggest possible window on to the world, on to the universe.”
We cannot give our children what they need if we continue to do what we are doing now. And if we do not promise to defeat every political leader who accepts the idea that our children will now get less, we will have failed our children this November.
“Massachusetts school district gets rid of art, music and PE teachers for coming school year. Randolph Public School District, located in the Greater Boston, Massachusetts region, has cut their entire K-12 arts, music, and physical education (PE) programs and staff from their 2020–21 budget. In a district with only 250 teachers, at least 25 teachers and other workers were given RIF (reduction in force) notices this week.”
Poor kids who need more, will now be getting less. Poor kids who depend on schools to offer them opportunities rich kids get at home, will now be getting less. If you think this isn’t coming to your community… you probably live in a pretty wealthy place.
Our children need four things from us. Acceptance. Access. Attention. and Abundance. Now more than ever.
Acceptance means you accept every child and you accept every child’s uniqueness and every child’s unique gifts. Black kids, poor kids, LatinX kids, kids with disabilities, rural kids, none of these children come to school knowing less, and we need to stop saying that. They know different. I can take any white five year old from Scarsdale and prove their limited vocabulary by testing them on East New York street slang, which is exactly what we do to minority and urban kids every day. I can take any child from any “Red” community in Texas and prove they are profoundly behind by testing them with questions about the Southside of Chicago. I can prove Trump’s youngest child needs remediation by testing him on 4H or FFA hog feeding.
Acceptance means an end to mass instruction and the beginning of meeting every child where they are, and how they are. Acceptance means the needs of children always trump the needs of adults. Acceptance means we don’t measure Black children by comparing them to white children. There is no equity without this shift.
Access is something that’s become an obvious issue across this spring. And it’s not just about broadband, because, as above, if schools don’t offer art, music, athletics, theater, engineering, the rich white kids will still get them. You know who won’t. Access means universal design and accepting all the various ways humans read, humans write, humans do math, humans pay attention. And not just accepting, providing. An old smartphone used as a wifi device offers more accessibility than 99% of the school chromebooks I’ve seen — those offer the wide world of android accessibility apps. But the chromebooks could be much better if kids were allowed to add what they need. And, if you can, Windows laptops offer the widest range of free accessibility tools — including everything in Chrome.
But all that accessibility becomes meaningless if teachers insist on things being done one way — their way.
Attention. Without giving our children our attention, nothing happens. In schools everywhere we demand that kids listen to us, while we barely listen to them. And they desperately want and need us to listen to them.
When we listen and watch our children we don’t just learn about them, we encourage them, we validate them, we reassure them, and we comfort them. Relationships matter, and relationships can’t exist without attention.
Abundance, well, abundance is the whole thing with kids. Abundance — an expansion of the idea of “slack” — is the opposite of Angela Duckworth’s brutally racist “Grit Narrative.” You know, and I know, that Black kids and kids from poverty have more “grit” when they arrive at kindergarten than many suburban white kids will leave high school with.
My friend Vince Scheivert once said, on receiving a major award, “for many of our kids just getting to school ins a monumental achievement in the morning. Our job is to make sure they want to come back.” And that is it. It has long been the intention of American education to offer African-American children the most minimal school experience that they could get away with, and then we blame the kids — those without sufficient “grit,” those lazy, badly raised kids who won’t stare blankly at the teacher while remaining rigid in their seats— when the kids don’t take school seriously. Why fix the schools since it is the children who are broken is the mantra behind so much of the evil we do in schools, whether it’s “growth mindset” — which kids seem to need but school administrators seemingly don’t — to programs, and I’m very familiar with one, in which the solution offered to the math struggles of African American boys was to teach them to wear a tie and fold their hands when sitting at a dinner table.
We owe our children more. We especially owe our Black children more.
“The racism inherent in the eugenicist-derived Grit Narrative lies in the assumption by elites — from Angela Duckworth to Paul Tough to David Brooks to those in the MacArthur Foundation — that the poor can not learn as they do, and that students in poverty come to school lacking in anything of value.
I grew up in a northern city which, when I began school, crammed 90% of African American kids into one of the 12 elementary schools. When we ’came together’ in junior high those Black kids had already missed all the opportunities for ‘enrichment’ (a word for why kids come to school) and were immediately labelled as so far behind the only goal (in less they were athletes) was to get them to age 16 so they could drop out.
And I worked in a southern school district which still had buildings built in the early 1960s as “colored schools” — minimal (originally) structures that supposedly proved that “separate but equal” was somehow true and legitimate.
Abundance can involve musical and instruments and field trips and computers and art materials and all of that, but what abundance means — at its heart — is giving children our time, giving them space, giving them opportunity. I worked with someone who taught K-1 computer coding with colored squares on the floor. I’ve seen children inspired by pieces of junk they turned into musical instruments. I’ve seen painters tape allow beautiful art. I’ve seen the simple act of extending recess when kids need it do wonderful things. I’ve seen using your classroom projector to show children worlds they’ve never seen through webcams. I’ve seen the gift of few instructions allow creativity to explode and kids finding their way to joy (“make something” might be the best gift you can give a child, as it offers them voice and agency).
Abundance is putting children first. Abundance is putting our most vulnerable first.
OK, listen. I’m a white male and American, the most privileged kind of human, and no matter what I can say about my life struggles, and I do tell those stories, everything I say, including everything I have said above, is a story seen from my position of privilege. But I’ve been in policing and I’ve been in education, and I’ve worked in places of poverty both urban and rural, and so I offer this post in the hope that it might help in some way at this time.
Because right now there just aren’t two sides, there is only right and wrong. And it is finally time to do the right thing.
- Ira Socol